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The Price of Liberty and the Cost of War

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Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force of the people…. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
— James Madison

THESE WORDS written by James Madison, one of our nation’s Founders, express an intuitive understanding of the risks to liberty posed by war and crisis. This insight was expressed by many in the founding generation — from Jefferson to Washington, from Franklin to Paine. In modern times, the early-20th-century journalist Randolph Bourne put it more simply: “War is the health of the state.” Modern political scientists and historians talk of a “ratchet effect.” This is the widely recognized phenomenon whereby, after each major crisis, the size of government never recedes to its pre-crisis level. The ratchet effect was objectively and quantitatively elucidated in the modern classic, Crisis and Leviathan — Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, by Robert Higgs of The Independent Institute (Oxford University Press, 1987). Higgs surveyed American history from the post–Civil War era to modern times, applying econometric analysis, and conclusively proved the existence of the ratchet effect.

When Abraham Lincoln instituted conscription of soldiers for the first time in U.S. history, violent riots rocked New York and other major Union cities. Freed slaves were lynched by mobs of angry draftees and their families. By the time of World War I, however, there was little resistance to the idea of a draft.

And when the draft was reinstated prior to America’s entry into World War II, it remained until 30 years after the war had ended. Even today, young people are required to register with the Selective Service Commission, despite America’s all-volunteer military.

During the Civil War, Lincoln’s wartime income tax was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. But the war’s Internal Revenue Service is operative today. With the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, the IRS has grown enormously in size and power.

In 1893, the newly inaugurated president, Grover Cleveland, was welcomed by an economic depression that by all economic standards pushed its victims to a much lower level of economic well-being than that reached later at the bottom of the Great Depression of 1929. Cleveland saw this as a crisis of civil, not political, society. He viewed the proper role of the government as that of maintaining a stable currency and preserving the rule of law. Within three years, with no intervention, the economy began one of its most vigorous bursts of expansion.

World War I found Woodrow Wilson nationalizing the railroads, reinstating a draft, instituting centrally planned government management of industrial production, and, of course, wage and price controls. When the war ended, most of the agencies it created saw their names change and the size and scope of their authority diminish considerably — but they didn’t disappear. In fact, they formed the infrastructure for the vast array of government regulatory agencies (the “Alphabet Soup Agencies”) that Franklin Roosevelt created to deal with the next crisis — the Great Depression of 1929.

Almost everything done during Roosevelt’s “Hundred Days” relied on the emergency rationale and wartime analogy. By Roosevelt’s time, the philosophy and vision of Grover Cleveland was viewed as anachronistic. But careful attention to economic data shows that the Great Depression was actually prolonged by the government’s intervention. In fact, temporary recovery was interrupted by a recession in 1937 (the so-called Roosevelt Recession). And the institutional legacies of those fateful years stand all around us: federal lending for a multitude of purposes; federal production and sale of electricity; federal manipulation of agricultural production, prices, and marketing; federal regulation of virtually every aspect of labor markets; the vast federal social-insurance system; an infinite array of federal subsidy programs — the list goes on and on.

World War II only provided more fuel for the expansion of the state. From price controls to rationing, from conscription to internment camps to censorship, the federal government saw unprecedented growth. In peacetime, the newfound powers of the central government never receded to their pre-crisis level. In fact, our modern political class has continually sought to invoke the feeling of crisis in order to justify expansion of their authority: we’ve seen the war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on poverty — and now, after the end of the Cold War, a war on terrorism.

This is not to imply that war is never an option — sometimes America needs to go to war. But as our Founders realized, and what so few modern Americans understand, with each crisis, power necessarily accrues to the central government, especially the executive branch. At the same time, a certain amount of the peoples’ liberty is surrendered. And with each crisis, the people grow more and more accustomed to a stronger government and less freedom.

Thomas Jefferson said, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” What he and his contemporaries so clearly understood was that war and crisis augment this natural tendency.

With these points in mind, it is imperative that we resist attempts by our political leaders to further curtail our civil liberties as America embarks on its war on terrorism. Every proposed increase in the police powers of the state must be given the utmost scrutiny and subjected to intense questioning.

It is troubling that, in testifying before Congress to request expansion of surveillance, seizure, and detention authority for federal law-enforcement officials, Attorney General John Ashcroft admitted that his proposals might not have done anything to stop the September 11 attack. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported on September 26 that senior Justice Department officials voiced skepticism about the FBI’s ability to handle the massive amounts of information being generated by the current terrorism investigation, let alone head off future attacks.

We must remember that every time America has gone to war, its citizens have surrendered their liberties not to the enemy, but to their own government. Remember Jefferson’s warning: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Restoring a proper foreign policy

Finally, America must also seriously rethink its foreign policy. The same wisdom infusing our Founders’ recognition of war as the engine of expansive state power guided their establishment of a noninterventionist foreign policy. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, admonished Americans to avoid foreign entanglements. Thomas Jefferson counseled “peaceful commerce with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

John Quincy Adams, architect of the Monroe Doctrine and considered by many historians to have been America’s greatest secretary of state, said it best:

Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

Our Founders realized that it was the fiduciary responsibility of government to avoid placing its citizens in situations that risk otherwise avoidable war. The primary purpose of the government is to secure its citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

War places those rights at risk. Pursuit of an interventionist foreign policy invites the risks — and costs — of war to fall on the very people to whom the government has primary responsibility. This is governmental malpractice.

The foreign-policy vision of our Founders helped America achieve unprecedented freedom and prosperity. But the foreign policy adopted since the mid 20th century more closely resembles that of an empire — and all empires come to the same end.

In a paper published by the Cato Institute entitled “Does U.S. Interventionism Overseas Breed Terrorism? — The Historical Record,” (Policy Briefing No. 50, December 17, 1998), Ivan Eland states, “According to the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, a strong correlation exists between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.”

America must return to a foreign policy appropriate to a free, democratic republic. It must refrain from being the world’s policeman — from imposing its vision and ideals on the peoples and governments of the world. Being the world’s only superpower does not grant license to act, directly or indirectly, as an empire — regardless of any good intentions.

This is not isolationism. America should remain an open, cosmopolitan, trading nation. (Few would call Switzerland isolationist. Yet Switzerland does not even belong to the United Nations.) But America should be “the champion and vindicator only of her own” freedom and independence.

If the United States fails to return to the path originally laid out by its Founders, it will suffer the fate of all the great empires that have come before it: decreased liberty, bloated bureaucracy, higher taxes, and, ultimately, collapse.

The Bush administration chose “Operation Enduring Freedom” as the name for its campaign against the terrorist threat. The choices America makes with respect to civil liberties at home and foreign policy abroad will determine whether “America’s New War” is appropriately titled.

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    Dr. Jeffrey Singer is a Phoenix-area surgeon who writes and lectures on regional and national public policy. He serves on the board of directors of the Goldwater Institute and is a contributor to Arizona Medicine, the journal of the Arizona Medical Association, and is a member of the Maimonides Society of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix.